As a Winnipeg Jets fan, whenever I read any hockey-related news, the first filter the information goes through is “How does this relate to the Jets?” For instance, when I come across a story like the firing of John Paddock (former Jets coach), or the return of Teemu Selanne, my thoughts naturally turn to their connection to Winnipeg. Normally, this process is just a momentary knee-jerk reaction that soon subsides and lets me then look at the info in its present context. But in the case of NHL attendance figures, I spend a little more time thinking about what it all means. You can guess where I’m going with this.
According to NHL attendance numbers through the first 70 games of this season, 10 of the league’s 30 teams are averaging at or under 16,000 fans a game. They are, in descending order of emptiness: Chicago, Atlanta, New Jersey, Boston, Washington, Florida, Nashville, Columbus, THE PHOENIX COYOTES (caps intended, Jets fans), and the New York Hockey Islanders, who are averaging just over 13,500 per home game.
On the bright side, there are no teams averaging under 13,000 fans a game like last season, when the Isles, Hawks, and Blues were the Molson Cup Three Stars of attendance futility. [My guess for the jump in these cities, respectively: DiPietro using some of that 40 year contract money to buy tickets for friends, the end of the Bill Wirtz era in the Chi, and a strong management team coupled with a better on ice product in St. Louis where the Blues are drawing over 17,000 a game].
The attendance figures, which can be viewed online courtesy of ESPN at http://sports.espn.go.com/nhl/attendance?year=2008, break down the numbers into a number of categories, including home and road attendance, percentage of capacity, and total fans in attendance on the season. Though not specifically relevant to our Jets-related analysis, some of the notable facts that emerge include:
1. The Habs lead the league in home attendance, drawing a full house of 21,273 every night. The figures are the same as last year, when the team missed the playoffs. This year at least, the on-ice product justifies the attendance.
2. The Pens, Wings, and Rangers are the three most popular roadshows. Considering the Wings play divisional games against hockey apathetic Chicago and Columbus, this number shows how popular the Original Six stalwart remains.
3. Eleven teams are at over 100% capacity for home games. [either standing room figures count, or the math is being done by the guys in charge of accounting at Societe General bank in Paris.]
But the thing that grabs my attention the most is the low figures that prevail in the bottom third of league teams, because this has the most import to any analysis regarding the feasibility of bringing a franchise back to Winnipeg. And without going into a full-blown analysis of what pegs need to be put in place (pun intended) before this dream can become a quasi-reality –and let’s not kid ourselves, there’s a lot that would need to be right — the NHL attendance figures are telling. Despite a rise in average attendance that has been consistent over the past decade, with the median team now drawing around 17,000 fans per game, a number of teams are failing to cash in on the league’s increased popularity. And with these low-hanging fruit ripe for the picking (ie: relocation!), let us now turn ourselves to the Winnipeg question.
The Jets: A Historical Perspective
In three of the last four seasons before leaving for Phoenix (1992-’94), the Jets averaged a little over 13,500 fans per game. I leave out 1995 from this analysis (when the team drew a paltry 11,000 per game) since the numbers that season are justifiably skewered by the knowledge that the team was leaving at year’s end.
During the three years cited, NHL average attendance hovered around the 14,000 mark. In the 1992 season, the average NHL team drew just over 500 more fans per game than did the Jets, making them hardly uncompetitive in this regard. And before one rushes to conclusions to point out that 13,500 fans would be on par with the league-worst Islanders, the following three factors, all of which are present today, are worth considering. Taken together, they help establish a promising case that a team in Winnipeg under the current conditions could consistently draw large enough crowds to –other factors being equal – make the team a viable enterprise and a worthwhile investment for the NHL as a whole.
A Better League:
The NHL average attendance this season is about 17,000 fans. Now one might be inclined to think that the rising number points to the inability for Winnipeg to compete given its small population and historically low attendance numbers. From another vantage point, however, one can make a strong case that this trend actually points towards an increased ability of the city to host a viable franchise. Presumably, attendance growth is partly attributable to an overall better product. When a league as a whole is in disarray (see MLB, or NHL post-strike figures) attendance plummets across the board. Conversely, when a league experiences a popularity boom, all franchises benefit. Which is to say, in the new NHL, where TV numbers and attendance numbers are way up in recent years, Winnipeg should be able to be carried along to higher figures than in the early 90’s, irrespective of the attendance woes still experienced by some of the league’s clubs today.
A Better Team:
Assuming Winnipeg fans are not indifferent to the competitiveness of their teams, and, like St. Louis Blues fans, will come to the gate in droves so long as the team is worth watching (unlike Toronto Maple Leaf fans, who would fill the ACC even if the Marlies suited up instead…..then again, this might make the on-ice product better!) a competitive team in a salary-cap, parity driven league, would presumably draw more fans than the often lackluster clubs that graced the city in the past. The attendance figures for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers Canadian Football team, which rise and fall with the team’s on-field success, is suggestive of such a disposition amongst Winnipeg sports fans. Which is to say, if a quasi-decent team were to relocate to Winnipeg (are you listening, Nashville?) one could certainly expect the fans to come out in droves for years to come.
A Better Arena:
To say the Winnipeg Arena was an outdated, ugly facility would be like saying Britney Spears and Chris Simon would have a crazy, messed up child. That is, it’s an understatement. With a new arena, like the recently built MTS Center (capacity: 15,000, with potential to expand if required) centrally located in the city’s downtown district, an NHL club in Winnipeg should fare well attendance-wise in comparison to how the Jets fared in the old barn (note: the arena issue was a major reason the team was sold in the first place).
The recent experience of the New Jersey Devils is instructive on this point. Last year, at the Meadowlands, the Devils averaged 14,100 fans per game (5000 if you subtract those put to sleep by the trap before the first intermission). This year, after relocating to Newark, the team is drawing nearly 15,500 a night, a substantial increase! Since the team is the same, the fans are notoriously apathetic, and the local economy hasn’t changed (an important factor, as the Detroit experience shows), it looks like the jump can be attributed to the new arena rather than other factors.
This analysis could go on forever, but for the purposes of our task today we will leave it where it stands. I have simply attempted to establish grounds for belief that, given current attendance trends throughout the NHL today, along with the circumstances on the ground in Winnipeg, it does not seem entirely implausible that a franchise in the city could not be a viable enterprise under the right conditions.
For Illegal Curve, I’m Steve Werier.